Becoming a better ringer

Thoughts about change ringing on church bells

I’ve decided to blog about change ringing on church bells, since I spend most of my spare time doing this.

My intended audience (if I have any) is people who have already learnt to handle a bell and can ring basic methods such as Plain Bob on five or six bells, who desire to advance their ringing.

Becoming a good ringer

I have struggled for years to become a better ringer.  I’ve rung peals of Surprise Royal and called quarter peals of Caters and Royal, but I still struggle to improve, and have great trepidation when attempting something difficult.

What is a good ringer?

For most ringers, a good ringer is someone with good bell control who can ring the ‘standard’ methods on a wide variety of bells,  strike their bell accurately and who is reliable – meaning that they rarely go wrong.  If you can ring advanced methods on higher numbers of bells, you are probably an ‘excellent’ ringer.  If you can ring advanced methods on 12 or more bells, you are perhaps an ‘elite’ ringer.  There are not a lot of these!

Bell-handling

Good bell-handling is essential to good ringing.  Deficient bell-handling will cause you to find that long draughts, high ceilings or close ropes are scary and your striking will suffer. There is a long list of handling faults that I won’t address here, but get a good tutor to help you.

It can be a serious problem if your rope swings forwards or sideways as you catch the sally: it can get in the way of an adjacent ringer or can catch on a door handle or other object with nasty consequences. [Although if there are any objects that could be caught in that way, they should be removed.  In one tower the flower-arrangers had left a heavy plant stand with wrought-iron curlicues against the wall of a ringing room. An unfortunate ringer hooked it with their rope and it flailed up and down across the ringing room, scattering the ringers, although with no lasting damage!] You should particularly ensure that you flick the rope down vertically in front of you at backstroke, that the rope falls over your thumb and over the back of your hand, rather than across your fingers, when you catch the sally and that the tail is between your thumb and the sally at handstroke.

Pay particular attention to:

  • Standing in the right place (not too far back)
  • Easily adjusting your rope length at backstroke
  • Catching the sally in the right place
  • Following through at both strokes

More advanced:

  • Pulling slightly harder at handstroke (especially on light bells or when there is a long draught)
  • Lengthening and shortening the backstroke according to the timing of your next pull
  • Adjust the pull so that the bell just rises to its highest point at the moment you need to pull again
  • Thinking ahead to the timing of the next stroke
Improving your rhythm

Good handling will help your ability to ring to a rhythm.  This in itself will help you to improve your rope-sight: by ringing at the right speed, your bell will fall into the right place, which you will be able to see your place so much more easily.  This is crucial to ringing on higher numbers, where error margins are smaller, but there are more positions to ring in and more ropes to look at.

There is another crucial benefit to good handling:  you will be less distracted by concerns that you might miss the sally, or that the bell will drop or go over the balance.  This means that you can put more of your thinking into the method.  If you constantly have those fears, again get a good tutor to check your handling.  Your ultimate aim is that your handling is so autonomous that the bell ‘rings itself’.  After all, you don’t think about putting one foot in front of the other when walking, and your aim is to get to the same state with ringing.

A further benefit is that you will need less effort in your ringing. This will help you to avoid aches and pains in your hands, arms, shoulders and abdomen, and to avoid blisters (although doing lots of ringing will help to toughen your hands).  You will also have reserves for managing those difficult bells.

Listening

The next thing is learning to listen.  Constantly count the bells and listen to the one that strikes in your position – i.e. yourself.  If you do this rigorously, you will find that after a while you can automatically hear your bell.  And with further practice and effort, you can pick out all the other bells too. This brings several rewards.  This lets you correct for odd-struckness of your bell and you can hear when the treble is leading, which will help to ensure that you dodge in the right place.  Moreover, with more practice, you can hear which place you are in, so you don’t need to rely so much on counting your place.  And you can listen to the music and enjoy it. But importantly, it frees up part of your mind so you can think about the method ringing.

Difficult methods

When these things are second nature, you can start ringing difficult methods.  Whilst any method is difficult when you can’t do it, some are challenging even to good ringers.  There is no alternative but to learn the ‘blue line’ thoroughly.  This is easy to say, but so hard to do for people with normal memories.  Most of us find that we can suddenly blank out, with no idea of where we are.  This is disastrous in ringing, and you rely one someone else being able to correct you.  It is so dreadfully easy for the other ringer to suddenly doubt whether they have made an error, and go wrong as well.  This is so often fatal.

This is not a sign of ‘old age’ or forgetfulness.  It’s so easy to be distracted by a strange noise, a sudden twinge or realising you didn’t make an important phone call.  You can learn to mentally rise above the ringing, so that you feel like an outside observer.  You have to do this as a conductor.  Firstly, you have to manage your own bell, secondly you have to manage the method, thirdly you have to remember where you are in the calling, and finally, you have to correct errors and lapses of other ringers.  As a new ringer, any one of these would need your total mental processing capacity, but with practice and effort, you can get there.

Signposts

Many times I have told aspiring ringers some of the signposts and tricks that I use, just in case I have a lapse.  But so often they dismiss this with a shrug and mutter along the lines of ‘Don’t confuse me!’

I don’t mind, as long as they realise that it is a step-by-step process needing conscious effort to observe and learn the signposts.  In fact, the mental effort you are making to watch the sign-posts will increase your alertness and reduce your likelihood of lapse.

Amongst the important signposts are to observe where you work with or pass the treble and likewise your course bell.  On the other hand, it is fatal to rely only on these sign-posts, because it depends on other people staying right.

So if neither your memory nor other ringers are entirely reliable, how do you manage to score peals and quarter peals?

This must be the subject of my next blog.

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